Mar 31, 2008

400 picket Westboro Baptist church

Kansas City Star
March 31, 2008

TOPEKA (AP) | Instead of picketing by members of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, about 400 people targeted the church in a Sunday protest of their own.

Organizers said the event drew marchers touting messages of compassion and tolerance for homosexuals. The church is known for its anti-gay message and picketing of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Homosexual, heterosexual and transgender pickets hugged, danced and cheered as passers-by honked their support for the protest at Gage Park in Topeka.

Organizer Chris Love of Leavenworth said he got the idea for the march after Westboro members picketed actor Heath Ledger’s memorial service.

Mar 30, 2008

A disturbing trip to Bountiful - abuse in the name of God

Kim Hughes
Toronto Star
March 30, 2008

An angry B.C. journalist demands to know who is going to protect the young from the polygamists

Suggesting a North American religious group is like the dreaded Taliban is a grave accusation. Fighting words, you might say, and sure to spin heads.

But Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham has plenty of strong language for the polygamous Mormons of Bountiful, B.C.,Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz. – members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS for short.

In her riveting and unsettling book, The Secret Lives of Saints, Bramham variously calls them extortionists, misogynists, racists, child abusers and, most disturbingly, pedophiles. She says the Taliban has nothing on the FLDS where revolting attitudes toward women and children are concerned.

Though she concedes that "credit" for the "North America Taliban" designation belongs to Utah Attorney General and FLDS nemesis Mark Shurtleff, Bramham's book is a forceful corroboration of the comparison.

Not for nothing did American FLDS leader Warren Jeffs occupy a spot opposite Osama bin Laden on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List before his capture outside Las Vegas in 2006. He would eventually be found guilty of two counts of rape as an accomplice.

Yet as Bramham demonstrates time and again throughout The Secret Lives of Saints, nobody save a few vigilant reporters, prosecutors and escaped former FLDS members seems especially outraged about the plural marriages, child brides, cultish schooling and us-versus-them mentality of the sect.

Not even criminal activity, it seems, can shake our collective torpor or challenge us to question where freedom of religion ends and fundamental human rights begin.
Winston Blackmore, the so-called Bishop of Bountiful and Canada's self-appointed polygamy poster boy, has publicly admitted to having sex with minors on Larry King Live and elsewhere but has barely faced censure, much less charges or prison time.
The B.C. government, for its part, has taken hand wringing over the issue of prosecuting polygamy to a new level.
Meanwhile, Bramham writes: "Jeffs and Blackmore continue to direct and control almost every aspect of their followers' lives. With the increased prosecution, Jeffs has ordered many of his followers to leave Utah and Arizona and move to several new communities, including the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch near El Dorado, Tex., where he consecrated the first fundamentalist Mormon temple while he was still a fugitive.
"Blackmore has moved many of his followers to Idaho and has made numerous trips to fundamentalist communities across the United States and Mexico to gather more faithful to his flock.

"Girls are still being forced into marriages. Boys are still driven out to make the polygamous arithmetic work for the older men. Neither boys nor girls are getting an adequate education in either country. And Arizona's attorney general admits that reintegrating the communities into the mainstream after years of isolation and theocratic rule is still years away.

"How is it," Bramham asks in her prologue, "that two nations, so clear-sighted in recognizing human rights atrocities in other countries and so fearless in taking on tyrannical rulers on the other side of the world, have been so blind to the human rights violations committed against their own women and children?"

How indeed, and from that starting position – with dukes held high – Bramham takes readers through a brief history of Mormonism, following the fork in the road that occurred at the end of the 19th century when "the mainstream church renounced polygamy (and) dissidents splintered off and continued to practice plural marriage ... continuing to hold to founder Joseph Smith's revelation that men must have multiple wives to enter the highest realm of heaven."

As Bramham illustrates, there are huge and very troubling problems with the one man/multiple wives equation. For starters, there are fewer women to go around, meaning younger males further down in the FLDS pecking order are necessarily marginalized and,Bramham contends, cast out of the community – once their cheap labour has been cruelly exploited by FLDS-run companies.

Since procreation is the name of the FLDS game, those of child-bearing age are coveted, leading to truly icky scenarios where very young women are paired up with very old men. Families with children numbering in the double-digits are expensive; many live in poverty even as the husbands "bleed the beast" – FLDS vernacular for leveraging government assistance. Of course, those church tithes are expected to keep rolling in.

Bramham also cites documented cases of rare genetic mutations among FLDS members, a byproduct of a closed community marrying and reproducing. The family tree dynamics of such arrangements are pretty mutated as well.

"When the ceremony concluded, the men went back to their priesthood meetings, and the new bride, Ray's sixth wife, found herself alone outside in the shade, uncertain what to do next. It gave her time to contemplate the complex family genealogy that had just become even more complicated. She was Winston's stepmother and stepmother to her own two stepmothers which, most confusingly of all, made Debbie her own stepgrandmother."

But the real rub with the FLDS is the age of the brides. And it is here Bramham is most pointed and visceral.

She writes: "In 1999 at the age of thirteen, Ruth was driven north from Colorado City, across the world's longest undefended border, to Bountiful. She was too young to drive, too young to buy cigarettes or liquor. Yet a few days later, she was married in a celestial ceremony to Bishop Winston Blackmore's nephew.

"Even though Ruth was a first wife, the marriage was still illegal. She was too young to have been married without the written consent of a B.C. Supreme Court judge. And even though Canada's age of sexual consent is among the lowest in the developed world, Ruth was still too young to be deemed legally able to consent to intercourse. Urged on by religious leaders, her husband was a child-rapist."

Chew on that for a moment. Or this: American FLDS leader Rulon Jeffs (Warren Jeffs' late father) "accumulated more than 60 wives. Two young girls, sisters named Edna and Mary, are said to have been given to him by their father ... as a gift on his ninetieth birthday."

Clearly, such actions have to stop. While the story of Mormon Fundamentalist beliefs and actions has been broadly told – notably by Jon Krakauer in his 2003 title Under the Banner of Heaven and in various documentaries and television exposés – Bramham's book adds a Canadian perspective.

Moreover, she makes us angry, never more so than when drawing searing portraits of those abused then discarded by the FLDS. When it comes to provoking change, anger trumps ambivalence every time.

Kim Hughes is a Toronto freelance writer and editor.

Mar 29, 2008

7 Russian Cult Members Emerge From Cave

Mike Eckel
Associated Press
March 29, 2008

MOSCOW (AP) — Seven women who had holed up in a cave for months with other members of a Russian cult awaiting the end of the world emerged Friday night and were being treated by emergency workers, regional officials said.

More than two dozen others remained behind but were expected to come out as early as Saturday, the governor's office said.

About 35 members of the Christian cult entered the cave near the village of Nikolskoye, 400 miles southeast of Moscow, in early November to await the end of the world, which they expected in May. They threatened to detonate gas canisters if police tried to remove them by force.

The vice governor of the Penza region, Oleg Melnichenko, said in televised comments that the seven women came out voluntarily, carrying satchels with their belongings. He said the cult leader, the self-declared prophet Pyotr Kuznetsov, was brought from a local psychiatric hospital to help persuade the women to leave.

He said the women walked on their own nearly a mile to a prayer house, where emergency workers were talking with them, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

"There is no reason to urgently hospitalize any of them," Melnichenko was quoted as saying.

Another official in the governor's office, who gave only his first name, Alexander, said the other cult members still in the cave were expected to give up their vigil, perhaps by Saturday. He said four children, reportedly under age 2, were among those in the cave.

Melnichenko said officials feared that melting snow could eventually lead to the collapse of the cave, but there was no immediate threat to those who remained behind.

Officials had repeatedly enlisted the help of priests from the Orthodox Church in an effort to persuade the group to leave, communicating mainly through a small chimney pipe that poked up through the snowy hillside.

Earlier this week, Melnichenko told reporters that some of the cult members had indicated they might leave the cave on Orthodox Easter, which is April 27.

Kuznetsov has been charged with setting up a religious organization associated with violence. Earlier this week, officials said they had seized literature that included what appeared to be extremist rhetoric. He has been confined to a psychiatric hospital since November.

An engineer from a devout family, Kuznetsov, who goes by the title of Father Pyotr, declared himself a prophet several years ago. He left his family and established the True Russian Orthodox Church and recruited followers in Russia and Belarus.

He reportedly told followers that, in the afterlife, they would judge whether others deserved heaven or hell.

Followers were not allowed to watch television, listen to the radio or handle money, Russian media reported.

Mar 26, 2008

Author delves into life in Bountiful

Victoria News
March 26, 2008

Exploring polygamy - 
Author delves into life in Bountiful 
Religious extremism seems worlds away from Victoria.

However, the southern part of our province is a hotbed of religious extremists. A tiny communal town with less than 1,000 people, Bountiful, B.C., is one of North America’s well-known settlements for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who openly practice polygamy — the practice of taking multiple wives.

The tiny community recently gained national attention when Utah’s Warren Jeffs, the former leader of Mormon fundamentalistpolygynist sect who had close ties to the town, was arrested and convicted of being an accomplice to rape after he arranged an extralegal marriage between an adult follower and underage girl.

Winston Blackmore, the leader of Bountiful, B.C., once a follower of Jeffs and close confident, has since denounced the former leader as a “false prophet.” Blackmore currently has around 22 wives (at last count) and has allegedly fathered more than 100 children and allegedly impregnated 15 year olds.

Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham has been covering Mormonism and polygamy in both Utah and Bountiful for close to five years. She recently released The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in a Polygamous Mormon Sect, an in-depth account of Blackmore’s operation and some who have fled faith.

She started writing about Bountiful in 2004 while delving into the issue of human trafficking and met Blackmore in person some two years later.

“He’s quite charming and quite funny,” said Bramham, who will speak in Victoria April 5. “And like some religious or political leaders, from the moment he meets you he’s looking for your weaknesses and looking at ways that he can expose them and exploit them.”

In 2004 Bramham was invited by the wives of Bountiful to come and explore the community. But when she arrived, Bramham found the wives mysteriously were unwilling to speak to her.

South of Cranbrook and Creston right beside the Washington State border, Bountiful is a picturesque town. Bramham made several trips there while penning her book and found the men very secretive.

“All the time while I was talking to the women they were always getting phone calls and I presume it was from Winston. Calling them, telling them what to say, the women really become the public face in a way because the men are so scared of being arrested. And these women, they’re so well-trained to tell you that they’re happy in this sort of sweet way.”

A columnist for the Sun since 2000, Bramham also interviewed the ‘lost boys’, young men who had either been kicked out, or left the sect. Uneducated, untrained and unfamiliar with the outside world, many of the boys fall into deep drug and alcohol addictions.

“The ones who were kicked out really are in no position to be dependable on their own and that’s what they’re faced with.”

Within The Secret Lives of Saints is commentary on why the provincial and federal government seem inept at prosecuting men such as Blackmore.

“I don’t believe they should be allowed to continue, it’s antithetical to Canadian society. People should be able to practice religion as they choose, but it should not be able to go above and beyond the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Bramham will read on Saturday, April 5 at 7 p.m. at Bolen Books, 111-1644 Hillside Ave. For information call 595-4232. 

Mar 25, 2008

A buzz of boycott on Mount Olympus

Wesley Pruden
Washington Times
March 25, 2008

Something's cooking on Mount Olympus, and it doesn't smell like Szechuan Chicken with Chef's Famous Garlic Sauce. Zeus and the gang are frowning on Beijing.

The latest Chinese rape of Tibet is putting second thoughts into the heads of people you might not expect to entertain tough thoughts. "There will be a boycott of some sort," says Edward McMillan-Scott, vice president of the European Parliament. "What kind of boycott, is the question right now. At a minimum, I think the European Union should require that no elected official from the 27-member [European] states attend the opening ceremony. But that is a minimum."

The Chinese tasted a bit of what's coming when two men breached the line of a thousand cops yesterday to unfurl a boycott-the-Olympics flag at the lighting of the Olympic torch at Ancient Olympia. The flag portrays the interlocking Olympics rings as handcuffs, like those stockpiled to greet impolite visitors at the Beijing games. A Tibetan couple were arrested on a road outside the ancient Olympian stadium when they fell to the pavement to obstruct a Chinese runner. Two more Tibetans were arrested when they unfurled a Tibetan flag from a balcony; an Indian tourist was detained on suspicion of "planning a pro-Tibetan incident."

Another boycott, like that of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, at first seems unlikely. "No, absolutely not," a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee told ABC News yesterday. "No consideration is being given to a boycott. There is no discussion. We would never entertain it. It's not on the table." But with a denial like that, you never know.

The Chinese, who have learned they can behave with raucous contempt for the concerns of the rest of the world, obviously think they will pay no penalty for killing a hundred Tibetans (and probably many more) for celebrating their national day. The drumbeat of slander and libel of the Dalai Lama continues. When a hundred students at the Central University of Beijing held a candlelight vigil for the slain Tibetans, more than a dozen were led away in handcuffs to "assist the authorities in their investigation." One European professor who was a witness told correspondents: "It was just a group of Tibetans praying, but it was organized, so the Chinese freaked out."

Organized prayer always freaks out Chinese officials. It's the organization, since it can't be the prayer. When I once asked a Chinese ambassador at lunch why his government was so terrified of the Falun Gong, several of whom were at that moment chanting and waving banners outside his embassy on Connecticut Avenue, he replied with unconvincing incredulity: "Do you know that Falun Gong deny the deity of Jesus Christ?" When I asked whether his remarkable question reflected a change in his government's resolute atheism, he appeared flustered, and changed the subject.

Tibet is a special case for Beijing; the Dalai Lama is particularly reviled for standing up to brutal authority. Alice Thomson writes in the London Daily Telegraph of visiting the Dalai Lama in his exile at a hill station in India. An old woman arrived at the gate to ask for a blessing from the man the Tibetans call the Lord of Compassion. She told how she was arrested for carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama in the folds of her skirt. She was dragged through the streets by her hair and thrown into an open-air prison when she refused to spit on the photograph. She was raped repeatedly and suspended upside down by the Chinese soldiers, and forced to sleep on the bodies of dead inmates. When she was finally released she was told that her husband had been forced to marry a Chinese woman, and she would never see her children again.

If the fun and games must go on, the assembled heads of state ought at least raise a glass of their plum wine in salute to the strength, the courage and the bravery of the Tibetans. They deserve the gold.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

Mar 20, 2008

Aum's bankruptcy proceedings to end 13 years on

Jun Hongo
Japan Times, 

March 20, 2008

The bankruptcy proceedings for Aum Shinrikyo will conclude on March 26 even though the doomsday cult will pay only 40 percent of the ¥3.8 billion owed to victims of the crimes it committed more than a decade ago.

Lawyer Saburo Abe, who was appointed by the court to manage Aum's assets in 1996, told reporters Wednesday at the Tokyo District Court that the bankruptcy process has reached its limit because of the size of Aum's huge debts.

According to Abe, the cult still owes roughly ¥5.1 billion.

Disbursements will end once the final round of payment is distributed to about 1,200 victims starting in June, bringing the total amount to ¥1.5 billion.

"We've done everything we can. We must ask for assistance from the government from this point on," Abe said.

The announcement came a day before the 13th anniversary of the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995. The gassing left 12 people dead and some 5,500 wounded.

The conclusion of the bankruptcy proceedings, however, could trigger a new phase of litigation in the form of compensation claims against the cult, or against the government in lieu of the cult.

At the 16th and final meeting of the victims' and cult's representatives on March 26, Judge Kenji Nishi of the Tokyo District Court will issue instructions on the conditions for closing the bankruptcy proceedings, including details on how Aum's claimable assets will be managed in the future.

Abe and the victims have urged the government to establish a special law that would provide financial support to Aum's victims.

Shizue Takahashi, who lost her husband in the subway attack, criticized the government for not providing aid to the victims and their families over the past 13 years.

"Although the state has the obligation to ensure the safety of its people, the government has not provided any help to us," Takahashi, the representative of Aum's victims, said at a news conference with Abe.

Kazuo Asakawa, whose sister, Sachiko, was found in cardiopulmonary arrest at Nakano-Sakaue Station on the Marunouchi Line and is now paralyzed, also complained about the lack of government support.

"While (the Aum members) are being provided care (via the judicial process), my sister and other victims are being abandoned. It is not rational," Asakawa said.

The Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition has set up project teams to explore ways of aiding the victims, examining different compensation amounts and the criteria to be met.

In February, the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, submitted a bill to the Diet that would oblige the state to pay redress on behalf of Aum.

"The lobbying process is just beginning, and we must keep moving forward," Takahashi told reporters.

In addition to the Tokyo subway attack, several Aum members were convicted for killing seven people in a sarin gassing in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994, as well as the murder of lawyer Yokohama Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family in 1989.

Several cultists, including founder Shoko Asahara, have been sentenced to death.

Following the arrest of Asahara and other key members, Aum was declared bankrupt in 1996.

Abe was then named the trustee and appointed to collect the cult's assets to provide redress to its victims.

Aum renamed itself Aleph in 2000.